Okay, I've started another story. ;P (Yes, I know, I should really finish at least one of my works-in-progress before I keep starting new ones, but hey, my muse is just temperamental like that. |facepalm| ).
Anyway, I'm glad you weren't entirely serious about the name thing, Smuppet, because Tori's the name of the main character in this story. ;P I tend to re-use names because I can't be bothered thinking of new ones.
And I should probably warn that, like most of the stories I write, this came to me in a dream/daze. The first three chapters just appeared in my mind and I had to write them down. Unfortunately, my subconscious isn't clever enough to invent such a thing as a coherent plot, and I seem to enjoy teasing myself with mysteries but not providing myself with any of the answers. Basically, I'm almost as much in the dark about what's going on as Tori is. I just hope the story will explain itself to me in due course. :P
Anyway, I haven't edited yet, but I thought I may as well post this to see if it's worth continuing. :) Any and all feedback is muchly appreciated and rewarded with a giant imaginary cookie.
Chapter One: From The Mists
The Mists were restless. Tori could sense it.
A cloud of tiny water droplets suspended themselves throughout the air, making her clothes damp despite the lack of rain. No breeze or gust of wind disturbed the humid afternoon. Not even bird calls or the rustling of leaves dared break the otherworldly silence of the forest.
This was an unnatural place. So all of the townspeople in Ternsdale whispered. You were mad to go near The Mists, they said. Or if you weren’t mad to begin with, The Mists would soon see to that.
Tori had no doubt that they whispered about her, too. “That girl from the Alvara farm,” they’d mutter, shaking heads. “She’s been stolen by The Mists, mark my words. Unnatural, the way she wanders around there. Someone should step in and do something about it before she goes the same way as her father.”
But some morbid curiosity made Tori come here day after day. With each step she took, The Mists grudgingly retreated to reveal their secrets. Gnarled old trees loomed over her, their branches twisted and bent, straining under some unknown force. If she looked closely, she could sometimes make out tiny faces in the grain of the wood. Sometimes they winked and laughed at her, and at other times they looked eerily as though they were trapped in the wood and screaming for help. Everything was full of life here. The leaves were the greenest things she had ever seen, glistening faintly with moisture. It was as though the entire forest was one living, breathing entity.
And today, it wasn’t happy. Something had disturbed its ancient tranquility. Clouds of mist swirled restlessly about her ankles, as though she were walking through a marsh rather than over a forest floor. The haze of water droplets was thicker than she had seen it in years. She could barely see her own hand before her face, let alone the path ahead.
It felt like the entire forest was holding its breath. Waiting for something.
Her horse whickered and shifted uneasily, tilting her head back.
“Shhh, Fevana,” Tori whispered, stroking her horse’s honey-coloured nose comfortingly. Every sound they made felt dead – stifled before it had a chance to grow.
“Come on, let’s just go a little bit further.” She didn’t want to return to her growing list of chores at the farm just yet.
There was a slight scuffling in response to her words, and a small head poked out of the inside of her saddlebag. A pair of orb-like black eyes peered at her owlishly.
“Don’t look at me like that, Arka,” Tori whispered. “I’ll head back soon, I promise. Besides, I’ll be fine with you here to protect me.”
The animal’s tufted ears twitched, and he blinked at her – once, twice. Tori interpreted this to mean that he thought Tori was being an idiot, but in acknowledgement of her right to make foolish human errors, would not interfere.
Tori laughed quietly and took up Fevana’s lead ropes. Vision was too poor to ride safely, so she led her horse around another bend on foot.
To the left of the path ahead, she could faintly make out a clearing in the trees. She had never seen anything like that before. The forest was usually an impenetrable wall on either side.
Arka gave a faint, warning hiss, but Tori was compelled to step closer. Careful not to crush any dry leaves or twigs under her boots, she crept towards the clearing until she could peer through the trees.
Incredibly, there was someone there. A stranger.
Tori knew immediately by his outlandish appearance that he was a long way from home. Eyes of that intense blue weren’t common around here, and neither were dyed blue jackets of such fine make.
The man was leaning against the trunk of an old tree, warily studying the shadowed forest just to her left, as though he expected a monster to jump out from the woods at any moment. He was young, Tori decided – probably only two or three years older than her, although his features were pale and drawn, making him appear older. He was breathing heavily, clutching at his ribs with his left land. His right arm was flung out, and Tori caught the glint of sunlight off metal. A sword. He had a sword, and it was bloodied.
Seeming to withhold a groan, the stranger bit his lip and rested his head against the tree, closing his eyes for a moment. Spots of blood were starting to soak through the blue of his jacket.
Tori didn’t think she made a noise, but she must have done something, because suddenly the stranger’s eyes flew open. As though by magic, he was suddenly on his feet, snatching up his weapon and assuming a fighter’s stance. He peered into the trees where she was standing, suddenly not seeming wounded at all.
“Who are you?” he demanded calmly. His voice didn’t have the rough edges characteristic of these country parts, so he must have been from one of the cities. But what would anyone from the big cities want here?
Tori was just about to step into the clearing when there was a feral growl from behind her. A red-brown blur sped past her towards the stranger, emitting a low hiss. The man’s eyes widened in surprise before the creature leapt onto him, clawing its way up his jacket. He attempted to shake the thing off, but it was too quick, drawing back claws like knife-blades poised to tear at his jugular.
“Arka! Arka, no! Stop!”
Tori tore into the clearing in time to see Arka with his five-inch claws unsheathed and raised to strike.
“Arka,” Tori said more firmly, “don’t.”
The animal paused for a moment, his tufted ears perked. He tilted his head slightly and seemed to be considering her request. Then, just as swiftly as he had clawed up the stranger’s body, he retracted his claws and shimmied back down. Slinking over to Tori, he leapt onto her shoulder in one bound.
Tori soothed his hackles down with one hand, rubbing behind his ears until Arka let out a grudging purr.
The stranger was still regarding them suspiciously. Tori noted that he had lowered his sword but not sheathed it – and she had the feeling that he was ready to use the weapon at the slightest sign of trouble from her.
“Sorry about that,” Tori said, eyeing the weapon uneasily. “Arka’s never attacked anyone before.”
“I guess I just have that effect on people.”
There was a short pause.
The stranger wasn’t looking at her, Tori realized. His gaze was still fixed on Arka, his thoughts unfathomable beneath hard blue eyes.
“Interesting breed of animal you have there,” he said carefully. “Where did you find it?”
“Arka?” Tori reached up self-consciously to scratch the animal’s ears. “Well, he found me, really. I got lost wandering through the Mists, and he came out of no where and showed me the way home. He’s been following me around ever since.”
The stranger was still looking at Arka. Was he annoyed because Arka had attacked him? But no, he didn’t seem angry. He just seemed contemplative, as though he were assessing both Arka and her and determining the level of risk that they posed to him. It was slightly unnerving.
Arka seemed to share her misgivings, because he let out a feral hiss, raising his hackles threateningly. His bushy tail swished about and tickled her cheek.
“You’re not from here,” Tori observed finally, to break the silence.
The stranger switched his gaze to her, and Tori wished he hadn’t. She felt for a moment as though she were being systematically taken apart and sorted through. The feeling passed as the man relaxed almost imperceptibly; supposedly realising she wasn’t a threat.
“No,” he agreed.
He suddenly seemed to sway slightly before regaining his balance. It was only a moment’s lapse, but Tori realized how much energy he must have been expending just to stand up straight.
“You’re wounded,” she pointed out.
“Nothing I can’t take care of myself.”
“Oh, yes, I can see you’ve taken very good care of yourself so far,” she couldn’t help the sarcastic reply.
“Well that’s really none of your business, don’t you think?”
She recognized that stubborn tightening of his jaw. It was the same look her brothers got whenever they were determined to suffer manfully in silence. She was guilty of it too, sometimes, if she was honest with herself.
She sighed. “Fine, you don’t have to let me help you. If you want to bleed to death out here, I guess that’s up to you.”
Even as she said the words, she knew she couldn’t just leave this man to die out here. Despite his suspicious and unexplained presence in the Mists, he was still just a man, and he was injured. Now that she had found him, she had a responsibility to make sure he was okay. But how could she convince him to accept her help when he appeared determined to have nothing to do with her - whether that meant his death or not?
After a moment’s thought, she folded her legs under herself and plopped down on the soft springy grass.
“What are you doing?” the stranger asked uncertainly, eyeing her suspiciously from his upright position.
“Sitting down,” Tori said simply. “My legs are tired. I’m resting.”
She then proceeded to remove her leather walking boots and flex her toes with a relieved sigh, studiously ignoring the stranger.
After a moment, the man also sat down, resting his back against a tree. His movements were stiff, and he caught his breath when skin must have pulled at an open wound. Now that Tori saw him up close, he looked awful. There were dark rings under his eyes, and his already fair skin was drained of blood, right down to his lips. It made a stark contrast against his dark hair.
“We don’t get many strangers around these parts,” Tori said conversationally. “It’s not exactly a tourist attraction.”
The stranger chose to ignore that statement, returning to his earlier occupation of scanning the surrounding trees for danger.
“In case you didn’t pick up on it,” Tori said slowly, “that was a barely disguised invitation to tell me what you’re doing here.”
“Thanks for the invitation, but I guess I decline.”
“…Fair enough. My name’s Tori, by the way. Tori Alvara.”
The man regarded her warily for a moment. “I’m Brennan,” he offered finally.
Tori waited for more information, but it seemed that was all he was willing to tell her about himself. Oh well, so he wasn’t the talkative type. Either that or he had an extreme and irrational dislike of her. It didn’t really matter either way.
She glanced upwards, but she couldn’t really see the sun from within the Mists. She might have been here for hours. If so, she would be in trouble when she got back.
“It’ll probably be dark soon,” she noted. “We should get out of here before night falls.”
The idea of being in the Mists at night time sent a shiver of fear through her. It was one thing to walk the paths in daylight, with Arka to guide her if she got lost. It was quite another to try to navigate the maze-like routes in pitch black. She’d heard that all manner of strange and dangerous creatures manifested after dark, as well. All good reasons to get out of here as soon as possible.
Brennan seemed to agree with her there.
“You should go,” he said. “If you wait around for me, it’ll be dark before we can leave. I’ll be fine on my own. Besides, I’m headed in a different direction to you.”
“How can you be sure if you don’t know where I’m going?”
His tone brooked no argument. Tori resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “So where is it you want to go?”
For a moment it seemed like he wasn’t going to tell her. “I’m headed towards Dubhan,” he said finally.
Tori nodded slowly. “I know the way. It’s right by my house. I can show you, if you’d like.”
That was a lie, but Brennan couldn’t know that. Besides, she would show him the way to Dubhan, she defended. Just as soon as he didn’t look ready to pass out from fatigue and blood loss.
Brennan finally seemed too weary to argue. “Fine,” he consented with ill grace. “But you’ll regret helping me. Everyone does.”
That was an odd thing to say, but she ignored it. She wasn’t sure she really wanted to know what he meant.
Arka glared at Brennan silently as he climbed to his feet. Tori had never seen the animal take such an extreme and immediate dislike to a person before. It was obvious Arkal wasn’t happy about Tori’s decision to take Brennan home with her. Brennan didn’t seem too fond of Arka either, really.
“Your pet looks like it wants to take another swipe at my jugular,” Brennan said, hoisting up his pack with a grimace.
“Arka’s not my pet,” Tori corrected. “And he’s perfectly harmless, usually. Follow me.”
“He didn’t seem so harmless when he was trying to kill me,” Brennan muttered, following Tori into the trees.
“He’s only like that usually if we’re under threat. Are you a threat, Brennan?” She’d asked the question lightly, and she didn’t turn to see his expression harden slightly.
Tori found Fevana right where she had left her, waiting patiently on the path. She rubbed the horse’s nose affectionately. “Sorry for leaving you alone for so long, girl,” she whispered.
Fevana snorted in reply.
“We’ll be faster if you ride on the horse,” Tori said to Brennan.
“I don’t think so. I can walk, you know.”
Barely. He was swaying where he stood.
“Don’t you know how to ride?” Tori asked him innocently. “I could teach you, if you like. You just put your foot in here,” she indicated the stirrup, “and then - ”
Brennan made an annoyed sound in the back of his throat. He made a show of swinging up onto the horse effortlessly, even though Tori could tell that it cost him. “You are incredibly annoying,” he informed her. “Has anyone ever told you that?”
“I’ve got five brothers. They tell me all the time,” she said wryly. “Okay, we’d better go.”
I've half finished the next chapter, as well. But I feel like it might be a little bit slow-moving so far? I promise that something big is going to happen eventually, but it takes a few chapters to get going.
Also, I need to put some description of Tori's appearance in there somewhere, but I can't find a suitable spot to do it. I was going to switch to Brennan's perspective for the next chapter and do it that way, but then I decided that I don't want to reveal too much about him just yet.
Anyway, can anyone spot a way to put some description in without breaking the flow of the story?
And what do you think - does it hold your attention enough so far?